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  • Rikki Lambert

Australia: Under New Management

From left: Treasurer Chalmers and PM Albanese meet with Treasury officials in Canberra

With the Liberal and National parties resolving their leadership line-ups and Labor on the cusp of the 76th seat for a governing majority on Monday, Flow political editor Rikki Lambert casts his eye over Australia's new management.

It seems odd to describe Australia as being under new management, in one sense, given we've spent the better part of the last 2-and-a-half years under the management of state premiers and territory chief ministers through emergency powers to handle the pandemic.

Yet, as emergency directives cease and parliamentary democracy is restored, Australians can look forward to a 'new normal' under the federal leadership of Anthony Albanese, the new prime minister.

Late on Monday the vote counting from the election 8 days prior indicated that Labor would snag the seat of Macnamara in Melbourne and, thereby, the 76th seat it needed for majority government.

PM Albanese will breathe a sigh of relief that the bluster he and now former PM Morrison made during the campaign of not governing with the support of the Greens or independents will come to fruition. However, the Greens' win of enough senate seats to hold 12 will make passing legislation difficult - but the government benches on the green leather are called the 'treasury benches' for a reason. The resources of government will be solely at Labor's disposal for, at least, the next three years.

On Monday the Liberal and National parties opted for a male Queensland duo to lead the Coalition out of - well, it's not really the wilderness, just what could be a mere momentary exile, if the Coalition play their cards right.

Peter Dutton was chosen unopposed to lead the Liberals in Opposition, a post-government poison chalice that in recent decades has not delivered government to the Liberals' Brendan Nelson or Andrew Peacock, or Labor's Bill Shorten or Kim Beazley.

Never in the Liberal party's history have they been led by a Queenslander, nor indeed has it been led by a woman, with Sussan Ley joining Julie Bishop as the highest elevated women in the party as deputy leader. The former environment minister was also chosen unopposed, after fancied Karen Andrews read the room that having two Queenslanders in the leadership positions would not be a good look.

Yet the Nationals - with a stronger hand in coalition agreement negotiations after holding all of their seats - also opted for a Queenslander in their lengthier deliberations on Monday in Canberra.

Moderate Nationals MP Darren Chester and deputy leader David Littleproud challenged incumbent and second-time leader Barnaby Joyce in the routine spill of the Nationals leadership, with Littleproud prevailing. Likewise in a three-way contest for deputy leader, Nationals NSW senator Perin Davey defeated colleague Kevin Hogan and western Victorian MP Anne Webster.

The Coalition therefore takes a State-of-Origin style leadership team into Oppostion, two Queensland-NSW combinations replete with cane toads and cockroaches, but no cabbage-patchers, croweaters or sandgropers.

This could be problematic for the Coalition after its Melbourne mauling and Sydney slaughter at the hands of the Greens and 'teal' independents determined to do something about climate change or the 'climate emergency'. Both NSW-based leaders are from regional NSW, by no means a negative from a Flow point of view, but how this new Coalition leadership team appeals to voters with an Albanese-led government strong in metropolitan areas will be one major challenge before Mr Dutton.

This brings us last but not least to Prime Minister Albanese. The triumph of inner-city independents is being hailed as a warning to Labor that what they did to the governing Liberals in 2022 could see Labor-held inner city seats targeted in 2025. Already we have seen several Brisbane seats fall to the Greens, and this will drive Labor policy as a point of difference with the Coalition on climate change.

The dominant theme in the Nationals leadership challenge was the refrain from moderate Liberals, now ousted from their seats, that Barnaby Joyce's position on climate change was one reason they lost their seats. Already the language from new leader David Littleproud is one of moderation, if only tepid, but the Prime Minister will seek to land damaging blows on the Coalitions' credibility by showing leadership on climate change.

Whilst concerns have been expressed about the funding of Labor's commitments on 'rewiring the grid', new treasurer Jim Chalmers will find a way to ensure renewable energy is at the forefront of federal expenditure. In the battle for metropolitan electorates, spending on transmission lines, wind turbines and solar farms is all that is likely to occur in the first term of the government in regional Australia.

A major challenge for the incoming government is the rising price of power, a new front in the cost-of-living battle that Labor won (in rhetoric, at least) on Saturday 21 May. When Peter Costello departed as treasurer in 2007 incoming Labor treasurer Wayne Swan faced the fiscal tsunami that was the global financial crisis ('GFC'). By contrast, Australia is already in recession as Jim Chalmers takes charge and, by all accounts, roaring out of restriction-related recession into huge growth numbers. As has been observed before, Labor will be licking its lips at managing the economic recovery its way, picking its preferred beneficiaries of government grants and favour to emerge bigger and stronger than their competitors in the recovery.

It is a godsend that conditions in agriculture are so positive - if not a bit too damp in some regions - as it would be very hard for the farming sector to get a look-in if it was relying on government support under Labor. Commodity prices across the board are so good and opening rains so good that farming will be able to look after itself at least for another year before looking to the government for assistance. A big challenge is the increasing agrarian protectionism by governments worried about food shortages, driven by Russia's conduct in Ukraine both in a military sense and in controlling exports from one of the world's foodbowls. Whilst this is driving up returns for Australia's exporters, longer term those goods Australia isn't making will become more expensive to import. Whether Labor's campaign mantra of Australia 'making things again' extends to 'growing things again' and food manufacturing looms as a major structural shift for Australian agriculture, if the government can grasp the challenge.

The federal government's more immediate challenge will be implementing its spending and policy agenda whilst shielding all Australians (or more likely, shielding those more likely to consider voting Labor in 2025) from the pain of rising living costs. Labor's early focus will be a new 'grand bargain' with business to hike wages in the private sector so that 'big business' shoulders the cost-of-living relief burden. This would relieve the federal government of the need to deliver tax cuts or Centrelink payments, although the Johnson government in the United Kingdom has recently announced a swathe of financial handouts to households that would be tantalising for Labor. A greater amount of spending on childcare to consolidate Labor's gains with women voters will be on the cards, as the treasurer delivers an economic outlook update in June and a revised budget in October.

Already the treasurer is implying a razor gang will not only attack coalition-era spending but even slash some of Labor's own campaign promises due to undisclosed Frydenberg-era red ink now discovered in treasury briefings.

Amidst this, Labor is also commissioning a first review into the role of the Reserve Bank of Australia in decades. It is hard to separate this from a second historic hike of interest rates by the RBA during an election campaign, both when the coalition was in government. Whether this prospect horrifies Labor as it looks ahead to 2025 might well come out in the wash of the review and related commentary.

A turbulent fiscal and economic run to Christmas looms but for Messrs Morrison and Joyce, a lump of coal in the stocking is guaranteed.


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